This post first appeared here on Mind Body Green.
Over the past two summers, Chelsea and I have cycled 7,000 miles through 14 countries. No sag wagon, no designated route—just leg power, our bikes, gear, and desire for adventure.
During our travels, we accept local advice and hospitality, wake up open to each day’s surprises, and wing it whenever possible. But one thing we are always adamantly consistent about is our food. For ethical, health, and environmental reasons, we choose not to eat any animal products.
The bike tours were challenging, eye-opening, fantastic—a full range of emotions every day. From headwinds to breathtaking views to searing heat to idyllic European villages to crumbling rural towns, we pedaled through it all. Navigating cobblestone cycle paths in France was a pain; finding great vegan food while burning 5,000 calories per day proved to be a simple aspect of the trip.
Here’s what thousands of miles and a couple million pedal strokes of cycle touring on a vegan diet has taught me:
Few people are surprised about your food choices
Special diets are everywhere now, and most people know someone on one. “Oh, my cousin is gluten-free” or “my brother eats Paleo” was a common refrain. Tiny cafés in Nebraska (not exactly a vegan stronghold) easily accommodated our needs by piling vegetables on hash browns.
Getting enough protein is not an issue
Even biking 50 to 80 miles per day, my body repaired itself and built muscle. I trimmed fat, but my leg muscles grew. I even added muscle to my upper body by doing daily upper-body workouts. When people ask me where I get my protein, I can honestly say that I simply eat lots of plants. No powders, no supplements—just real food. I’m more concerned about fiber—only 3 percent of people eat enough each day, versus 97 percent of people who get enough protein.
My energy levels were firing
Unlike the days when I’d eat a giant sandwich with cheese and meat and sink into an afternoon stupor, plants don’t bog down my body. A veggie burrito or big salad crafted from ingredients in any grocery store keeps my system cranking. I was biking eight hours a day and still had energy to do push-ups each night.
Recovery was super fast
I rebounded and recovered quickly from physical efforts that would have previously sidelined me for a couple of days. Since a plant-based diet leads to lower inflammation, faster recovery from athletic events or workouts is an added bonus.
Many top athletes are vegan
I was attracted to a vegan lifestyle by the potential health benefits. Badass vegan athletes like UFC fighter Mac Danzig, ultra-marathoners like Scott Jurek, and triathletes like Rich Roll inspired me to give it a shot. While I wasn’t cranking out record-smashing 100-mile runs or choke-holds, I noticed an increase in performance.
Seeing and smelling animal feedlots opened my eyes to the plight of animals
Biking past stinking feedlots in the rolling hills of Iowa and Austria was gnarly. Getting buzzed by animal transport trucks on their way to slaughterhouses reinforced my desire to completely opt out of animal agriculture.
Western Europe is a plant eater’s paradise
Countries like Belgium, Spain, and Germany are years ahead of the U.S. in terms of vegan awareness and availability of plant-based alternatives. Grocery stores stock inexpensive organic produce, and almost every restaurant server knew the word vegan, even in rural villages. Big cities are a plant-eater’s promised land—Prague has 26 vegetarian restaurants!
We didn’t have to worry about refrigerating food
This is a small thing only a cycle tourist will appreciate. When we were pedaling through the middle of nowhere for days at a time, unspoiled food was a big deal.
Both Europe and the United States grow amazing amounts of corn and soy
I knew the Midwest U.S. was a breadbasket. It was a surprise to discover the same in Europe, where much of the countryside is used for crop production. Between the two, we spent literally two months cycling past fields of corn and soy—90 percent of it aimed for animal consumption.
Traveling made us vegan ambassadors
In some areas, we were the first vegans anyone had met. “Wait, no cheese on your pizza?” People were incredibly nice and also intrigued by our food choices. Many asked questions. Our goal was to be knowledgeable and speak from a place of conviction (animal rights) or data (health and environmental facts). The biggest thing? To be genuinely friendly and meet people at their comfort level.
After thousands of miles of cycle touring, our belief in a vegan lifestyle has never been stronger. Few choices affect personal health, the environment, and animal welfare as much as opting out of animal agriculture does. Meat and dairy consumption is declining, restaurants are increasingly catering to vegans, and vegan alternatives like Beyond Meat are flourishing. Traveling as a vegetarian or vegan will only get easier.
As Gene Baur of Farm Sanctuary says, “This lifestyle is not about deprivation; it’s about living inspired.” I encourage people to check out movements like Meatless Mondays or the 30-Day Vegan Challenge. See how your body feels and adopt what works for you. Then get out there on your bike and start training for your next (or first) bike tour.
I plan on pedaling thousands more miles as a vegan, so maybe I’ll see you out there!
This post is for the person dreaming of hopping on a bicycle and embarking on a self-powered journey. All you need are limbs for propulsion, a bike to haul gear, and a dash of audacity.
The hardest advice for me to follow is my own, but the below is rooted in my personal cycle touring experience. Prior to last summer, I’d done two weekend cycle tour jaunts. Then we ripped off the training wheel Band-Aid and rode 4,000 miles through the U.S. in 2014. I’m sure a few of our friends wondered whether we’d make it. Heck, we wondered if we’d make it. Yet we survived (and enjoyed) our trip. Now here we are, nine countries into a bike tour through Europe, with many miles and lessons picked up up along the way.
Bike touring is a wild, wonderful way to travel, and everyone’s experience is different. Take whichever nuggets of advice speak to you and ignore the rest. May tailwinds find you wherever you pedal.
- You don’t need a special bike. Don’t let lack of a shiny, brand-new touring setup stop you from hitting the road. You can tour on almost any bike. A $100 yard sale bike or $4,000 titanium rig both have two wheels. Same thing for tents, stoves, sleeping bags and pads; you don’t need the ultra-light version. Logistics are quite simple. Just get out there and pedal. As a bonus, the heavier the gear, the more calories you burn and the more you get to eat.
- Say yes to invitations. Always accept when someone invites you to join them for a meal or to stay at their home. (Unless they’re wearing a hockey mask and carrying a running chainsaw.) The best parts of touring include unplanned, serendipitous meetings with people. I’d never have flown in a seaplane in New York if shaking my head was my reaction to an invitation.
- It’s your trip, so ride only as much as you desire. That century you want to crank out for bragging rights? It only matters to you. Nobody cares how quickly you finish the tour, the average number of miles per day, or the total elevation ridden. (Well, nobody except your addicted-to-Crossfit friend who needs NUMBERS, damn it, to wrap their head around any accomplishment.) But everyone else? They want to know the craziest and coolest places or people that you met along the way. How the trip made you feel. Which vista made your heart sing, and maybe a tale of the wettest, worst day on the road. But the mileage? Thirty per day is fine, and so is 100. Take what feels good and go with that. Feel free to curse under your breath when a 23 year old and his friend rip by you like drag racers. Their speed, and your plodding uphill grind, are both a-ok.
- Accept that not everyone identifies with what you’re doing. As my uncle Steven respectfully commented after we’d ridden to Chicago, “I think you’re insane!” Also, people who don’t tour have no idea why you’re doing it, but they’ll have a story about another cycle tourist doing something way cooler than you such as riding a vintage Big Wheel around the world while building orphanages along the way. Accept that the random dude in Indiana with a story to tell isn’t trying to trump your experience; he’s merely looking for common ground. Laugh and go with it.
- Eat real food. Lots of it. Hunger will become an annoying companion who taps you on the shoulder every hour – “just sayin’ heyyyy.” Try to consume healthy whole foods and not just Poptarts. Your body is working hard and good food is important. I am amazed how many grocery stores in the middle of nowhere have ingredients for a crisp, hearty salad. Feel free to eat your body weight in chocolate here and there too.
- Your butt is going to hurt from all the hours grinding on a saddle. Get over your pride early and grease up. Vasoline works great and you can find it in any gas station. Learn to apply lube discreetly, such as by the side of a busy highway at rush hour with your back turned to the road. Most policeman have bigger fish to fry than indecent public self-groping.
- Pack light, but bring a couple comfort items. A few luxuries from home go a long way. Bring a Kindle reader, a journal, coffee making equipment or tech to stay connected. I recommend leaving your teddy bear at home unless he’s the trip mascot, and certainly if you won him at the county fair and he outweighs your bike.
- Audiobooks and podcasts will preserve your sanity on the long, tough days. Anyone who claims they don’t need these magical devices are too Zen to need a bike (levitation is faster for travel) or haven’t tried them yet. I borrow books digitally from the library, and podcasts are always free.
- Keep things in perspective as shit goes awry. Travel opens you up to life’s randomness; bicycle touring doubly so. Weather, be it rain, heat, cold, or wind. Hills. Flat tires. Closed grocery stores from 2-5 (seriously Europe?). Hosts cancelling at the last minute. Some days will go to plan, and others will pour rain and your bike will tip over while you’re getting directions, carefully distributing all your electronics into a puddle. Accept that best-laid intentions are mere dandelion puffs in a stiff breeze, and also that swearing loudly in a foreign land makes you look like a moron. You are lucky enough to bike tour. Try to appreciate it, even when all you want to do is kick your bike into a ditch and stick your thumb out to hitchhike.
- People want to help you. They’ll wonder what the heck you’re doing riding a bicycle in the middle of nowhere – “what’d you do, get a DUI?” – but someone you’d never talk to in your hometown will be your champion. They’ll buy you a burrito in a restaurant in Valentine, Nebraska or offer a spare tube for a flat repair in Los Angeles. Even the guy with an old beater truck plastered with NoBama stickers will rescue you when bike trouble occurs, not to mention break out his stash of prized bourbon later that evening.
- None of your friends will have any idea where you are or how hard that day in the wind/rain/sun/hailstones felt. Know they love you and support your trip, but accept that life goes on in your absence and that you will be disconnected from the day-to-day of many people in your life. Send goofy videos of you escaping from a thunderstorm, or sing off-key happy birthday messages, but don’t expect anyone to catch every post. And don’t take it personally when people you expected to follow along have no desire to keep track of you.
- Send your mom a note whenever you can letting her know you’re ok. She’ll love it.
- Embrace safety. Endorse your inner cyborg and get a helmet or bar-end mirror to keep track of your riding partner and, more importantly, texting teenagers. You don’t look cool in Spandex anyway. I feel naked on a bike without one. Oh, and get a bell or horn for your bike. Yelling “on your left” invariably makes people step into your path, especially when you don’t speak the language. Everyone knows what a bell means.
- This isn’t a beach vacation. Bike touring is physically and emotionally challenging. Some day whip by like summer vacations on a Slip-N-Slide, while others drag like a Saturday spent taking the SAT’s. On the toughest days, make sure to stop to run through a sprinkler or goof around on a random piece of playground equipment. Pull over to moo at cute baby cows or play fetch with a dog at a picnic area. There’s no hurry.
- Cherish your days off. Unless you are aiming to win Race Across America, don’t ride every day. Enjoy and explore a cool city with new friends. Sit around. Go for a run and see if your muscles remember what not biking feels like. Read a book. Call a friend or write a blog post. The more I cycle tour, the better I appreciate days to relax and absorb a place at a slower speed.
There are 237 excuses for staying put. Careers. Student loans. Love interests. Family. Pets. Societal norms. Fear. All of that is real, but in a decade, you’ll remember and cherish the memories of pedaling the world and expanding your horizons.
Your current life can probably pause, but the new you itching to break out, to have an adventure, won’t wait forever. Feed the explorer inside you before it calcifies and forgets how to run wild. Let that explorer bellow like a bull moose as you sweep down a mountain pass.
Just go. No reason needed other than your desire to wander. As Lewis Carroll wrote, “No, no! The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.”
“I’ll have a water,” I told my server at a London restaurant. He stared at me as if I were speaking a dialect of Baboon. “Wa-ter,” I repeated. He shook his head, sorry to be dealing with someone so incredibly stupid.
Two more tries, both of us 100% certain the other was a bleeding idiot. Then, he got it. “Oh, woh-tuh!”
If there is one experience so far that sums up the difference between England and the U.S., that almost-fail of a drink order is it. You see, I’ve found most things are similar to back home, but all experiences contain a slight tweak.
There’s the language, which is the “same,” yet totally different. Speed bumps are “humped crossings” (giggle) or “sleeping policeman,” as a speeding taxi driver told us. Pants are underwear, and trousers are pants. (I still haven’t figured out which to wear as an exterior layer.) Courgette is zucchini, aubergine is eggplant, and “the dog’s bollocks” means “that is the shit.” Pudding is dessert, as in “pudding wine” for a sweet finish to a meal. And while we’re talking about food, all lodging features hot water boilers for tea, but never coffee makers.
As you may know, everyone drives on the left side of the road in England. Easy enough, right? Well, this is terrifying on a bike and makes me feel hunted at traffic intersections. I carefully look both ways, but fully expect a vehicle to drop out of the sky and crush me nonetheless. Roundabouts replace stop sign intersections and act as slingshots for the vehicles that gun through them like rocket ships trying to escape a planet’s pull.
Away from cities, bike lanes and the national cycling network make for quiet, scenic riding. Compared to touring in the U.S., equivalent mileage takes much longer here. In the States, we might follow one or two quiet highways all day, which allowed for consistent pedaling. Route finding is tougher here, with dozens of tricky turns to navigate. Beyond that, the riding is slower through gated fields, bumpy canal walkways with ancient bridges, and gravel paths in the middle of nowhere. It’s a shift in mentality to ride fewer miles, but we’re handling it nicely so far.
Slightly random, but I am impressed by the ADA accessibility. Most toilets (as bathrooms are called) are designed to accommodate wheelchairs, with low sinks and plentiful grab handles. Hand dryers also replace paper towels. It’s as if the country is designed for the least physically capable. Perhaps I’m reading into it, but to me that’s a representation of England’s willingness to take care of society’s fringes, whether through welfare, medical care, or something as simple as a handle to assist getting off the can.
Tipping is also different. It’s rarely done, and then only at nice restaurants of the type we aren’t allowed to patronize in full spandex cycling garb. I think the lack of tips explains why bartenders will kick people out at exactly closing time. A British woman told us that servers and salespeople in the U.S. felt overly saccharine and helpful; to us, the distant, pre-occupied employees seem almost rude. I should also point out that tipping is unrelated to, “no fly tipping,” which means “don’t dump your junky furniture in this field.” (In the U.S., the sign would say “no illegal dumping.”)
People still live in houses. Except here in England, many residences are OLD. Like, built-800-years-ago old. People who visit the U.S. marvel at the shiny, big, and new; we are struck by the quaint and ancient. Pedaling along country lanes past stone fences laid centuries ago, bouncing over cobblestones in a tiny village, or enjoying a chai in a market square (every city we’ve seen has a walking-only central shopping district), we are struck by how present history is here versus covered by “progress.” Back home on the west coast, old is 120 years. Here, that’s scarcely a blip on time’s fickle radar. When a gravestone laments the death of someone who died from The Black Plague, that is old.
It feels good to be bike touring! Assembling the trip and traveling abroad was exhausting, but jet lag’s gloomy mist has cleared and our brain’s are working again. I am quite relaxed compared to last year when we pushed hard on the bikes and threw down mileage every day. We smile and laugh at town names like “Leighton Buzzard” or “Heath and Reach” and take each day as a fresh adventure. Less mileage means the slower going is fine, a nice treat.
In fact, we decided to kick back for an impromptu birthday stop today at That Amazing Place, a 1000 year-old monastery turned B&B. I could wax poetic about this divine location for a full paragraph, but suffice to say it features both a custom-built obstacle course AND complimentary wine refills while relaxing in the hot tub with a view of the English countryside. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate my 33rd birthday! (Unfortunately, I missed the obstacle course record by a bit. I must be getting old.)
In two days, we’ll roll the bikes aboard a night ferry on England’s east coast. The next morning, we’ll wake up in Holland and wheel south toward Belgium. And that’s what makes Europe the dog’s bollocks: each country is a short hop (or pedal) away, yet represents a new language, fresh customs, and a totally different experience. I may continue to have issues ordering drinks, but at least we’ll be back on the right (excuse me, correct) side of road soon.
This is Part 3 of 4 of the video series documenting our 101 day trip cycling across the the U.S. in the summer of 2014. If you missed Part 2, click here to check it out. This section covers from Indiana to the middle of upstate New York.
Three thousand miles into the tour, we are like cyborgs on bikes. With day-to-day routines nailed (except for my elusive rain jacket, which hides in the bottom of a pannier during storms) and legs forged from steely dragon’s teeth, we zip east. Most days, we don’t even break a sweat (<–dirty lie, even cyborgs sweat in 90% humidity).
At this point, we’re both starting to think about Maine, a far-distant mirage in our minds for the first 2/3 of the trip. The realization that we might actually complete the tour without our bodies breaking down feels great. But first, we finish out Indiana, head up toward Cleveland and then skirt along the southern edge of Lake Erie all the way to Niagara Falls before heading east into upstate New York. The magnitude of the effort to get this far sank in as the fall colors of New York beckoned from afar and the days cooled off, a welcome change.
You’ll notice I’m goofier in this series. Believe me, all videos are off-the-cuff and I (obviously) don’t employ a joke writer. I think you’ll get a couple chuckles at our random antics as we roll from nowhere Indiana all the way into the NE. If nothing else, it’s a good picture of what the terrain looks like!
Here’s the movie link for email subscribers, or click play below on the embedded video if you visit the site directly. Enjoy.
P.S. There are a few more photos below the movie if you want to check those out first.
This is Part 2 of 4 of the video series documenting our 101 day trip cycling across the the U.S. in the summer of 2014. If you missed Part 1, click here to check it out. This section covers from Spearfish, South Dakota all the way to the Indiana border. Straight through the heart of the Midwest in summer like true masochists.
We didn’t plan to bike through the Midwest in August. It just worked out that way. Our timing, framed around hitting New England during peak fall colors, meant we had to spend some time in the sweltering summer. To echo Vonnegut, so it goes… Trade-offs are part of living.
After clearing Montana, we headed south through the Black Hills of South Dakota. Instead of highways, we spent a few days on the Mickelson Trail, which is a 110-mile gravel trail that cuts right through the heart of the area near Mt. Rushmore. Timing it perfectly (not), we managed to hit the area just as 500,000 motorcycles descended like loud, buzzing bees for the Sturgis Rally. I think I heard, “Put an engine on that thing!” almost as much as “I could never do what you’re doing.”
The Midwest gets a bad rap sometimes, and part of it is a bit undeserved. Take Nebraska, for instance. I think most people picture horribly flat, ugly terrain stretching for miles. Flat? On the highways, yes. Country roads were rolling and nice. Ugly? Not in the NW part of the state in the pretty, rolling Sand Hills region. We lucked out and fog was more prevalent than crushing sun for the first half of Nebraska. Clear, hot skies came as we neared Omaha, as did gnarly traffic. My advice is to avoid big cities whenever possible if you go touring because navigating them on bicycle is often difficult or just plain nerve-wracking.
Iowa’s surprise was constant rolling steep hills, not flat corn country. We toiled up them through temperatures soaring into the high 90’s in humidity so thick we could have backstroked in it. Locals were kind, generous and excited to talk to us. A new idea (to us) was Casey’s, a gas station chain also featuring pizza ovens. We ate no-cheese, veggie pizza ($12.74 with tax) and scored ice cubes for our water bottles frequently to survive. That convenience was unfortunately offset by the stink of factory farms and the doomed animals inside them that permeated the air in many stretches of the state. An up-close, visceral look at the underbelly of our food system.
In eastern Iowa, road shoulders were 10 feet wide to accommodate the large Amish population and their buggies, which whisk along behind quickly trotting horses. We stopped at Stringtown Grocery, an Amish establishment featuring re-bagged bulk goods branded under the store’s name. And then we hit a big milestone – The Mississippi River! I stared at the flat brown flowing waters and thought of the Louisiana Purchase. To think that a huge chunk of land west of this grand body of water at one point wasn’t even part of the United States before France sold it to us. 2,300 miles on our bikes to get here and we were barely half way to Maine.
Scenery past the Mississippi was the cliche Midwest fare. Rather non-descript days pedaling through the corn and soy fields of Illinois blend together into podcasts and audiobooks that curbed the monotony a bit. Long days in the sun melded into one big mass of states starting with I as we left Iowa for Illinois and Indiana.
Our ability to forget difficult trials is powerful. This portion of our tour is scarcely three months ago and yet feels so long ago. The events of August in the Midwest are already softer in my mind. Memories of days where we had to linger in a gas station to let our internal temperatures cool down are slipping away. The sun’s fangs are blunted and the sauna of the humidity diminishes. Even the sameness of the landscape – corn, soy, repeat – looks better in the pictures.
What remains etched in stone is a mental confidence that we persevered as a team, pushing through conditions we normally would choose to avoid at all costs. The crucible of the Midwest forged our relationship into a stronger bond. For that reason alone, this tough section of the tour was worth it.
Enough chit chat. How about that video?! Email subscribers: click here for Part 2 of 4. Visitors to the website, just click play below in the embedded video. Enjoy…and see you shortly in Part 3!
I rarely look back. Forward, onward, tally ho! Always new adventures on the horizon, people to visit, places to see, as they say. Perhaps you’ve picked up on that?
Maybe that’s the reason I so enjoyed digging into the videos from our bike tour between hikes in Acadia National Park while we “kicked back” in Maine. Photos are fun to flip through, but they don’t pick up the wind, the rumble of a motorcycle, a joke or stupid song (there were lots) or the patter of raindrops. And even though the experiences are fresh, taking the journey anew through the videos was a fabulous time. I loved combining them into one continuous film voyage to bring you along for the ride and hopefully inspire you to take your own tour. Or maybe convince you that touring is the dumbest thing ever and you’d rather get on a plane to Cabo instead. (I had those thoughts…see Day 23 in the video.)
It was interesting watching my tone change as the trip progressed. You can literally see me relax and get into a flow where I was less stressed or worried. Lots more joking as my goofy side took charge and my business side (which isn’t the real me anyway) slid into the background. It was still there taking care of logistics, but the rest of the time I was more carefree and open to whatever came our way. I think you’ll notice too.
When we were deciding if extended touring was for us, I would have loved to see a video like this with commentary from the rider rather than just music. From a couple hours of clips, I cut it way down to pass along the ups and downs of touring plus scenery from many parts of the country that most people never visit. I think you’ll dig it!
This is part 1 of 4 and covers 32 days from our start in Viola, Idaho to Spearfish, SD over 1,346 miles. (Here’s part 2.) Come along for the ride! It winds through the Rocky Mountains with some amazing scenery in Glacier and Waterton National Parks. Then we hit the plains and roll across Montana in a diagonal line to Spearfish, South Dakota.
Email subscribers, click here to view the video. Others, just click play below to watch the embedded version. A note that all videos were taken with an iPhone and were impromptu, unrehearsed and occasionally ridiculous. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
P.S. In case you haven’t seen it, check out the stats summary with all the numbers from our bike tour.
Life on a bike tour is a simple existence, and over 1,000 miles cycling in the last few weeks, our daily existence has hit a rhythm of sorts. This post describes the different aspects of the day-to-day logistics underpinning the soaring views, descents off mountain passes and hanging with wonderful people. After all, surviving a journey like this requires staying on top of practical, boring tasks, even when we’re exhausted and grimy from a hard day of riding. Which is every day!
What’s Our Day Look Like?
Each day we aim to pedal our way 50-60 miles on quiet highways or back roads to our destination. Distance per day, with a peak so far of 74 and a low of 28, largely depends on elevation gain and whether there are any services to be had such as water, stores and restaurants. For example, we’ll ride 30 miles and then 65 the next day to avoid a huge day or dodge camping in an oil field or on a ranch where we wake up with a bull steer stomping on our face. Also, we didn’t bring a water filter because apparently filtering puddles filled with arsenic and pesticides will turn your oatmeal and hair green, so our no-services range is about 100 miles.
For those of you picturing us hammering straight through the day, let me quickly dispel that notion. Bike touring is about the journey! Breaks along the way, usually every hour or so, are for food, stretching or lying flat on our backs in the middle of a field, which is just as nice as it sounds unless there are mosquitoes or no shade. We stop anywhere that seems interesting, be it to wander around museums (still searching for the World’s Biggest Ball of Twine), eat (constantly), meet people (the weirder, the better) or simply catch a break from the taint-grinding of multi-day long-distance cycling.
And so our days are spent pedaling for 4-8 hours and 10-12 hours from start to stop, passing through small towns of 50 people up to a few thousand. Rural America at its best! Let me say this: with that much time in the sun, tan lines quickly become a print model’s worst nightmare! We took another cyclist’s advice and picked up Pearl Izumi sun sleeves, which are white, lightweight cover-ups that slip on and prevent Scorched Arm Syndrome.
We wake up in the tent, or on a bed or floor in someone’s house or in the occasional hotel. Traveling long-term always requires me to take stock of my surroundings and recall where I am – “oh yeah, N. Montana today, not the van in SoCal.” Then I bounce out of bed to make breakfast while Chelsea clears out the tent. In an effort to avoid turning into a pencil-armed T-Rex with no upper body strength, some sets of push-ups, burpees and core exercises kick things off. An occasional hoot of derision from a passing pickup truck is well-deserved, I should add.
Next, we break camp and hit the road. Wake up time depends on how late we were up with hosts the night before, and weather is a factor as well. If it’s going to be 95, we’re up earlier, with 5 the earliest so far. (Tough when it’s light until 10:30 at night this far north!) We’ve left as late as 11 on shorter days when the weather is cool. As we head east and August heat waves roll in, we’ll be up early for sure to beat headwinds and heat. No, I won’t put money on that. 🙂
Do You Sleep Under Picnic Tables in a Cardboard Box?
Nope, just out in the open clutching our bear spray with cycling shoes clipped into our pedals. Or in culverts hiding from the law, depending how the day went. Some are better than others out here in the Wild West.
Nah, we either camp, grab the occasional hotel when bleary eyes and tired legs need comfort, or stay at a gracious host’s home (Couchsurfing/Warm Showers/friend). Also worth mentioning is something we’ve discovered along the way: small city parks are open to anyone wanting to pitch a tent next to the jungle gym. Yep, even drifters like us with hunger-addled minds. It’s a reminder that people are so generous and open-hearted; city folks could learn a lot from rural America. We certainly are. Though our political beliefs may occasionally differ, we’re all human at our core and will go out of our way to help a stranger, even a sweaty one dressed in some weird Spandex outfit.
Our gear is a mix of comfort and lightweight. The Big Agnes Copper Spur UL3 is a great three-person tent – more space and a bit more weight is so worth it for this many days on the road! We also have inflatable sleeping pads (Q Core SL) from Big Agnes that are comfortable and thick, yet pack down to a tiny size. Warning: they sound like a snorting walrus when you roll over on them at night. Chelsea has a 15 degree bag from Nemo and I’m rocking an REI original sleeping bag from her grandma. Works great, even if the weight suggests geese are still attached to the down.
Couchsurfing and Warm Showers Rule
Traveling reinforces the fact that people are amazingly generous. They will invite complete strangers into their home and share their space as if we were family. A recent host wasn’t even home when we arrived – “just let yourself in” – and took off on a backpacking trip early the next morning while we stayed another day. For those of you we’ve stayed with during this trip, THANK YOU for being so awesome! We hope you can come stay with us someday.
How Do You Ride with All that WEIGHT? UGH.
We do not (absolutely not!) ride with a heavy backpack, as a few have asked. Panniers are the way to roll! Also, numerous people have asked what it feels like riding with loaded rear and front panniers and a handlebar bag. “Dude, doesn’t that feel like a bloated hippopotamus squatting on your bike?!” Honestly, I initially had my misgivings, punctuated by whining and bellyaching. However, I’ve grown to dig my setup and my bike feels great while handling totally fine even at 35 mph downhill.
When we’re fully loaded and rolling, each of my front panniers has about six pounds in it. Left is my wardrobe in all its glory, right is the kitchen plus two packets of emergency backpacking food. Rear panniers are about 12 pounds each when they’re loaded down with tons of grub. Right rear is rain gear and sleeping kit, left is food, laptop and things we access a lot. The tent is strapped to my rear rack and we also both carry three water bottles plus a 3 liter water reservoir for long days, kept empty when we have access to towns.
Did You Bring Jeans and a Dress Shirt?
Negative, Ghost Rider. Clothing is fairly minimal. For riding, I have a few pairs of light socks, cycling shoes, two jerseys, two pairs of riding shorts, and sun sleeves/arm/leg warmers. For non-bike time, I’m carrying flip flops, two pairs of quick-dry underwear, three shirts, lightweight pants and shorts, and a down jacket for cold nights, which also doubles as Chelsea’s pillow. We certainly won’t be attending any white tie events along the way. Oh, and rain gear (jacket, pants, gloves and shoe covers), which we hadn’t used until a solid day riding in the rain and wind yesterday in Central Montana. Everything worked great!
To keep it all clean, every night we wash out that day’s riding gear in our Sea to Summit lightweight folding sink, which we then dry the next day under a cargo bungee net on our racks the next day. The Yard Sale, as we call it, though so far we haven’t sold anything. I can’t BELIEVE nobody wants my worn riding shorts.
What Are You Eating?
Food of the plant-power variety! A surprise to us, some organic produce and food is usually available in towns of 3,000+ people, which we encounter every few days. Otherwise, we’re in the “unincorporated township” realm a lot or 50-500 person towns with a bar that doubles as the post office…you can see how pickings might be slim. It’s a bit of a struggle sometimes, yet part of the experience and one we’re handling in stride.
Simple breakfasts of oatmeal or granola and then a mix of nuts and fruit (dried and fresh) for snacks throughout the day. I often have an entire bag of cherries or grapes in my handlebar bag to munch on during the day. Lunch is usually a rice, bean or lentil dish prepared the night before, leftovers from a previous meal stored in Tupperware or else we’ll stop to eat out. (Go-to vegan greasy spoon fare: home fries with “all the vegetables you’ve got!”) Same theme for dinner. Even burning 3,000 calories extra per day, I don’t wake up with my stomach trying to crawl out of my body in search of food, which goes in the “Wins” column! Some cycle tourists don’t carry a stove, or end up shipping their stove home for lack of use, but we use ours all the time and feel the extra weight is well worth it. I will say we occasionally miss the luxury of a refrigerator.
We load up on quality food when the getting is good, erring toward carrying extra weight versus eating convenience store food for a few days. It doesn’t always work out though: the night before our biggest ride yet, the grocery store was closed in a one-horse, seven-church town on a Sunday. We were forced to fuel 75 miles and eight hours pedaling with junk food (mmm, Skittles) and whatever we could forage. Can’t say I’ve ever spent $50 on food at a gas station before.
As for electrolytes, we carry powdered magnesium citrate plus salt and mix that with water or juice. Coconut water is great too. No bonking or cramping yet, so it’s working great, even on long, hot days. Chelsea has a timer on her GPS that beeps every 10 minutes to remind her to hydrate, which is a fantastic way to stay on top of it. I’m a noise-hating grumpy old man and so I don’t use a timer, but admit to swigging some water occasionally when I hear her beeper go off.
What’s the Hardest Thing About Bike Touring?
For me, it’s taking things one day at a time and not getting wrapped up in distance-mongering or my ego when I talk to some crusher 20 year old riding solo and doing 100 miles per day. Luckily, all I do is remind myself that they are rushing to get back before school starts and that riding 10+ hours a day for months is a grind.
Physically, the pedaling has gone better than expected! Our legs are steely strong and it is amazing that our bodies heal overnight and are ready to take the punishment anew every day, even as our minds say “stay in bed, you crazy cycling monkeys!” The toughest thing and most common reason for calling it a day is, as expected, sore butts, as there has been some chafing of late. ‘Nuf said about that – nothing petroleum jelly and a new saddle (mailed ahead and installed at a host’s house) for Chelsea can’t fix. We expected to deal with hurting derrieres, so this is just part of the journey. We shall persevere!
All in all, each day is a different logistical challenge. What to eat, where to stay, where to go, which Hells Angel to talk to in Glacier. We’re having an awesome time and the fresh daily terrain keeps it interesting, but I admit it feels like we have no free time and energy levels are just high enough at the end of a day to handle the daily basics that keep us from turning into wild-eyed savages attacking hikers for granola bars and washing our faces in oily puddles. That said, finding time (and power/wifi) to write or engage in other projects is proving tough. Which is fine, even if it annoys me. Life ain’t too bad, and we are doing exactly what we set out to do, which is ride to the east coast. I didn’t except hours of down time.
And so, with a slight reroute to our plans, onward toward the Badlands of South Dakota we roam!
It’s easy to do something that turns you into the Cheshire Cat of Glee. Everyone has that activity that lights up their soul and makes them smile ear-to-ear. Recently, mountain biking the best trails in the west does that for me, rolling up to a trailhead in the van and careening off into the distance eyes aglow. During the last eight months, I’ve had some of the most content moments of my life ripping along twisty trails or halfway through a ride eating lunch with a splendid vista.
And now, gears are shifting. We are parking the van at Chelsea’s parents’ near Moscow, Idaho and depart in two days on the next phase of our adventure: biking 4,500 miles cross-country to Maine! We’re embarking with just our touring bikes, a tent and other camping gear for an unsupported trek that will take us along the Canadian border. We’ll pedal north through eastern Washington, then turn east to cross Idaho, Montana, the Great Plains and Great Lakes, then meander all the way to Bar Harbor, Maine (Acadia National Park).
Waiiiit a second Dakota, you’re thinking. Why the HECK are you trading the fun of mountain biking for cruising slowly along on a loaded touring bike all the way across the country this summer? If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it! You’re the guy in a van, don’t change things up on us. Not fair!
Frankly, life being so good is exactly why I’m down for a new course. As I’ve alluded to in past writing, anything great will eventually grow stale without introducing new challenge to the mix. Whether that’s a shift in careers, a fresh hobby or a challenge like this one (totally Chelsea’s idea, by the way), leaning into the unknown creates that adrenaline-fueled excitement. Everything and everyone has New Relationship Energy when you’re just getting started.
What to expect of the ride? Neither of us has toured longer than five days straight! Thousands of miles is a LONG way to ride a bicycle, and my mind, body, soul and relationship will be tested along the way. Even at 50 miles a day, 4,500 miles is three months straight pedaling up mountains, across plains and through forests hauling all our gear. And the bad stuff! What if we get hit by a drunk oil truck driver in North Dakota? What if bears eat our food, then our bikes and tents with us inside? What if this is the hottest, craziest tornado summer of the last 100 years?! A bike helmet doesn’t save you when a giant Walmart truck drops from the sky.
Ohhhh, the bad stuff, that indistinct terror of the unknown. Often, we fear anything new, jumping to the worst case in our mind first instead of the best case. Think of anytime you’ve told family and friends about a big undertaking. A few will celebrate the new journey – “wow, that’s amazing!” And the majority will dig through every anecdote and news story that they’ve ever encountered to offer words of warning. “My cousin Rick tried that and barely survived,” or “My buddy’s uncle’s co-worker just sits in a corner staring blankly after a trip like yours.”
I can’t imagine what early settler’s heard from their safety-minded friends. I’m exaggerating…but you know what I’m saying. Everyone in your life cares about keeping you safe and away from harm and often the first response is one of concern and cautionary tales, however far-fetched. Rather than “have fun!” it’s “be safe.” Perhaps it stems from bygone days when our ancestors could only pass down wisdom via stories, and so warnings like that literally could save lives. “Thag, you steer clear of those TrampleYourAssasauruses in the summer, your uncle SlagHeap was mashed by one.”
Well, I have news. These days, life is safe! We in developed countries live in a world so ridiculously luxurious that people run 100 miles for fun and can fly (safely) around the planet on a whim for an insanely low price relative to bygone days. A hailstorm or flat tire in the middle of nowhere is a test, yet certainly not the end of our existence.
None of this is to say that I’m tough. I’m totally leery of the negative things that could happen; they crop up in my mind on an hourly basis. Testing our new tent on the back deck at C’s parent’s house in the country, the sound of a bear roaring nearby at midnight transfixed us in our sleeping bags for a couple minutes as we pictured the headline: “Dumb city slicker couple mauled in tent ten feet from house.” Mild terror until C’s dad starting laughing and turned off the iPad nature app featuring grizzly growls. Ohhh he’s quite the joker, her dad. Now I have to wash my sleeping bag!
Really though, we shall see how this goes. Dude, I’ve been driving around the country in my luxury German vehicle with a fridge and hot water boiler. I have wireless internet everywhere I go, and my favorite Synergy kombucha is almost always available. Our biggest roadblock, finding healthy plant-based food, is entirely a personal choice. Hmmm, can I actually do this?! Trading my comfy Sprinter van and mattress for a tent and sleeping pad? My stereo system for headphones? Accelerator for a pair of pedals and a bike seat? This sounds like a serious pain in the butt (literally, I’m sure).
And that’s why I’m game. I can always return to the van, or our house, to be coddled by the comforts of modern society. I can hop on a plane to Hawaii for a week in the sun, or drive to the beach for a weekend out of the city. But first, I’m spinning off into the Rocky Mountains to find some tent-eating bears. There will be trials of logistics and weather, plus the hangry (hungry+angry) moments when I don’t eat enough and Chelsea has to fend me off with a bike pump. (She calls that alter-ego NARG. Picture an ugly, surly monster with no logic or empathy.) Headwinds will batter the core of my convictions in the Great Plains and afternoon rain will perhaps dampen my spirits. It’s going to be hard…and so bodaciously rad! (The 80s live on.)
I know this: I’m going to emerge a stronger person with a new sense of what our bodies and minds can accomplish when we say “DO THIS” and set off on a big adventure. The best case is more confidence in the reality that testing our limits results in growth in directions we never expect. (Certainly in my quads.) And I suspect seeing new territory at bike-touring speed, and meeting kind, amazing people along the way, will light me up and crack my face into a big grin just like when I’m mountain biking.
Right now, it feels riskier to not keep mixing fresh horizons and new adventures into our lives, and this is simply the newest escapade. Living a life of no regrets is my guiding star, and so I grab my bike and point the front tire east. To Maine, I say! As a wise world traveler we met in Yellowstone told us, ““Be good, and if you can’t be good, be careful, and if you can’t do that, be really good!”
Friends and blog readers (one and the same): Drop us a line with your favorite places across the northern U.S.! If you have family or buddies anywhere along our route, please put us in touch. Meeting people during our travels is absolutely our favorite part of being vagabonds. I’ll be updating the trip map along the way, so follow along to see if we accidentally wander into the Arctic Circle (not part of the plan).
Dakota & Chelsea
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